Future of Schools

Elizabeth Gore won a surprise victory in the IPS board race. Now everyone is wondering what to expect.

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Elizabeth Gore is one of three new board members.

The Indianapolis Public Schools Board is starting the new term with a few unknown faces but perhaps the biggest mystery is a returning player.

After a bruising fight for control of the board, candidates aligned with the current administration won in a landslide, with one exception: Elizabeth Gore beat incumbent Sam Odle. But why she won — and whether she will stand against a board that is reshaping the district — is uncertain.

Gore is well known in the community, and she previously served on the board. But she lost her seat in 2012, when pro-reform advocates captured control. Even Gore is uncertain what was different this time around.

“I’d like to think, ‘What was that magic thing I did?’ ” Gore said. “But my way of doing things is the same. … My message is always the same.”

The election landscape, however, was a bit different. For the first time in recent years, candidates who have pushed for aggressive change — from partnering with charter schools to giving principals more independence — faced organized opposition in the battle for control of the board. A loose network of critics formed OurIPS, a grassroots group that partnered with Concerned Clergy to endorse and campaign for a slate of challengers.

Despite those efforts, every one of the candidates OurIPS backed lost on Election Day.

Instead, pro-reform candidates won an almost complete victory with the support of groups such as Stand for Children Indiana. A parent-organizing group that wages well-financed campaigns for its slate of candidates, Stand only suffered one loss in November, Odle’s defeat by Gore.

Gore, however, isn’t easily placed in the sides that were drawn in the race. Although she is sometimes critical of the administration, she was not endorsed by OurIPS and she did not run an explicitly ideological campaign. She raised about $1,200 during the race, a fraction of $25,626 Odle had raised in October.

Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand, said voters showed their strong support for changes in the district by electing most of the candidates the group endorsed. But he wasn’t sure what lessons to draw from Gore’s victory.

“I take at the end of the day those ballots being counted on Election Day to be a message,” he said. “But what that message is, I don’t know.”

It is also possible that Odle, a retired healthcare executive, was a particularly weak candidate. He faced criticism ahead of the election for serving as a board member for ITT Educational Services, a for-profit college that filed for bankruptcy last month following severe federal sanctions.

For Chrissy Smith, an IPS parent and active member of OurIPS, Gore’s victory is encouraging because it shows even people without much money can win. If critics of the administration are able to field candidates who are better known and respected in the community, she said, they have a stronger chance of winning future elections.

Smith is holding out hope that as a board member, Gore will be a dissenting voice who opposes the administration’s efforts to create innovation schools. Innovation schools, which are considered part of IPS but are managed by outside partners, are one of the most controversial pieces of the board’s agenda.

Gore shares some concern over the rapid expansion of innovation schools. But she does not see herself as an adversarial force on the board.

“I think when coming on the board, I have the thought process of agreeing to disagree,” Gore said. “Nobody agrees on everything all the time.”

OurIPS was defeated in the election, but the people who supported the group won’t be disappearing, Smith said. They are still in the early stages of planning but they aim to get more parents and community members involved.

For now, they want the school board to know that critics are still watching, Smith said. “They may have been voted in but they still have a responsibility to everyone in the district.”

Whether critics are able to sustain their movement and attract more people hinges in part on the outcomes of the district’s dramatic changes. Many of the innovation schools are designed to improve the district’s lowest-performing schools, but the administration does not yet have much evidence that its policies are improving test scores.

Board President Mary Ann Sullivan, who has been a strong advocate for changes in the district, said that if their work starts to pay off, she expects opposition to diminish.

“The best case scenario is that we start seeing more of the fruits of our labors,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard to argue with success.”


Colorado schools are getting a major bump in the state’s 2018-19 budget

Students waiting to enter their sixth-grade classroom at Kearney Middle School in Commerce City. (Photo by Craig Walker, The Denver Post)

Colorado’s strong economy has opened the door for state lawmakers to send a major cash infusion to the state’s public schools.

As they finalized the recommended budget for 2018-19, the Joint Budget Committee set aside $150 million, an additional $50 million beyond what Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked for, to increase funding to schools.

“We believe this is the most significant reduction in what used to be called the negative factor since it was born,” said state Rep. Millie Hamner, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

Colorado’s constitution calls for per pupil spending to increase at least by inflation every year, but the state hasn’t been able to meet that obligation since the Great Recession. The amount by which schools get shorted, officially called the budget stabilization factor, is $822 million in 2017-18. Under state law, this number isn’t supposed to get bigger from one year to the next, but in recent years, it hasn’t gotten much smaller either. 

But a booming economy coupled with more capacity in the state budget created by a historic compromise on hospital funding last year means Colorado has a lot more money to spend this year. In their March forecast, legislative economists told lawmakers they have an extra $1.3 billion to spend or save in 2018-19.

The recommended shortfall for next year is now just $672.4 million. That would bring average per-pupil spending above $8,100, compared to $7,662 this year.

Total program spending on K-12 education, after the budget stabilization factor is deducted, should be a little more than $7 billion, with the state picking up about $4.5 billion and the rest coming from local property taxes.

The budget debate this year has featured Republicans pressing for more ongoing money for transportation and Democrats resisting in the interest of spreading more money around to other needs. The positive March forecast reduced much of that tension, as a $500 million allocation for transportation allowed a compromise on roads funding in the Republican-controlled Senate. That compromise still needs the approval of the Democratic-controlled House, but suddenly a lot of things are seeming possible.

“We knew we were going to have more revenue than we’ve ever had to work with,” Hamner said of the status at the beginning of the session. But that presented its own challenges, as so many interest groups and constituencies sought to address long-standing needs.

“The fact that we’ve been able to reach such incredible compromises on transportation and K-12 funding, I think most members will be very pleased with this outcome,” Hamner said. “Where we ended up is a pretty good place.”

The big outstanding issue is proposed reforms to the Public Employees Retirement Association or PERA fund to address unfunded liabilities. A bill that is likely to see significant changes in the House is wending its way through the process. The Joint Budget Committee has set aside $225 million to deal with costs associated with that fix, which has major implications for teachers and school districts budgets.

The Joint Budget Committee has also set aside $30 million for rural schools, $10 million for programs to address teacher shortages, and $7 million for school safety grants.

The budget will be introduced in the House on Monday. Many of the school funding elements will appear in a separate school finance bill.

Going forward, there is a question about how sustainable these higher funding levels will be.

“It does put more pressure on the general fund,” Hamner said. “If we see a downturn in the economy, it’s going to be a challenge.”

outside the box

Program to bring back dropout students is one of 10 new ideas Jeffco is investing in

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Jeffco students who drop out will have another option for completing high school starting this fall, thanks to a program that is being started with money from a district “innovation fund.”

The new program would allow students, particularly those who are older and significantly behind on credits, to get district help to prepare for taking a high school equivalency test, such as the GED, while also taking college courses paid for by the district.

The idea for the program was pitched by Dave Kollar, who has worked for Jeffco Public Schools for almost 20 years, most recently as the district’s director of student engagement.

In part, Kollar’s idea is meant to give students hope and to allow them to see college as a possibility, instead of having to slowly walk back as they recover credits missing in their transcripts.

“For some kids, they look at you, and rightfully so, like ‘I’m going to be filling in holes for a year or two? This doesn’t seem realistic,’” Kollar said. “They’re kind of defeated by that. As a student, I’m constantly looking backwards at my failures. This is about giving kids something like a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jeffco’s dropout rate has decreased in the last few years, like it has across the state. At 1.7 percent, the rate isn’t high, but still represents 731 students who dropped out last year.

Kollar’s was one of ten winning ideas announced earlier this month in the district’s first run at giving out mini-grants to kick-start innovative ideas. Kollar’s idea received $160,000 to get the program started and to recruit students who have dropped out and are willing to come back to school.

The other ideas that the district gave money to range from school building improvements to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Fletcher Miller Special School, from new school health centers to a new district position to help work on safety in schools. One school, Stott Elementary, will create a “tinker lab” where students will have space and supplies to work on projects as part of the school’s project-based learning model.

The Jeffco school board approved $1 million for the awards earlier this year. It was an idea proposed by Superintendent Jason Glass as a way of encouraging innovation in the district. This spring process is meant as a test run. The board will decide whether to continue investing in it once they see how the projects are going later this spring.

Officials say they learned a lot already. Tom McDermott, who oversaw the process, will present findings and recommendations to the board at a meeting next month.

If the board agrees to continue the innovation fund, McDermott wants to find different ways of supporting more of the ideas that educators present, even if there aren’t dollars for all of them.

That’s because in this first process — even though educators had short notice — teachers and other Jeffco staff still completed and submitted more than 100 proposals. Of those, 51 ideas scored high enough to move to the second round of the process in which the applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a committee made up of Jeffco educators.

“We’re extremely proud of the 10,” McDermott said, but added, “we want to be more supportive of more of the ideas.”

McDermott said he thinks another positive change might be to create tiers so that smaller requests compete with each other in one category, and larger or broader asks compete with one another in a separate category.

This year, the applicants also had a chance to request money over time, but those parts of the awards hang on the board allocating more money.

Kollar’s idea for the GED preparation program for instance, includes a request for $348,800 next year. In total, among the 10 awards already granted, an extra $601,487 would be needed to fund the projects in full over the next two years.

Awards for innovation fund. Provided by Jeffco Public Schools.

The projects are not meant to be sustained by the award in the long-term, and some are one-time asks.

Kollar said that if that second phase of money doesn’t come through for his program, it should still be able to move forward. School districts are funded per student, so by bringing more students back to the district, the program would at least get the district’s student-based budget based on however many students are enrolled.

A similar program started in Greeley this fall is funded with those dollars the state allocates to districts for each student. So far, eight students there already completed a GED certificate, and there are now 102 other students enrolled, according to a spokeswoman for the Greeley-Evans school district.

But, having Jeffco’s innovation money could help Kollar’s program provide additional services to the students, such as a case manager that can help connect students to food or housing resources if needed.

And right now Kollar is working on setting up systems to track data around how many students end up completing the program, earning a high school equivalency certificate, enrolling in a college or trade-school, or getting jobs.

Helping more students on a path toward a career is the gold standard, he said, and what makes the program innovative.

“It’s not just about if the student completes high school,” Kollar said. “It’s are we making sure we are intentionally bridging them into whatever the next pathway is?”